Unlikely Hero

Hope Dies Last: The Autobiography of Alexander Dubcek

edited and translated by Jirí Hochman
Kodansha International, 354 pp., $27.50

Alexander Dubcek was a most unlikely hero. Modest, sincere, and cautious to the point of indecision, he rose in 1968 from obscurity to become the leading figure in the prague Spring, a reform movement that breathed new hope into the lives of Czechs and Slovaks, inspired the Western new left, challenged the authority of Soviet Communism in Eastern Europe, and anticipated elements of the final collapse twenty years later. His was the “human face” that people identified with the Prague Spring and its violent demise when the Soviet troops invaded that same August. Yet there were questions. How could a man whose life had been lived within the Communist world have challenged that system at its roots? Was Dubcek merely a symbol, a figurehead of reform? Or was he a true leader, who put his distinctive stamp on the course of events?

In Hope Dies Last, Dubcek tells a story that illustrates a quality in him not immediately discernible in earlier accounts of his life, yet one that helps to explain the apparent contradictions between the nature of the man and his rise to power. In early 1966, when Dubcek, then leader of the Slovak Party, was locked in a battle for survival with President and First Secretary Antonín Novotný, he took a brief holiday in the High Tatra mountains, an Alpine range that just majestically out of the undulating farmland of northern Slovakia. For two days Dubcek and a party of foresters hunted a bear that had been killing sheep on both sides of the Slovak-Polish border, but they had no luck and the hunting party dispersed. Dubcek, however, felt the bear was still lurking about, and had a premonition. “If I get the bear,” he told a departing associate, “it means Novotný won’t get me.”

He persuaded one of the remaining foresters to go with him for another try, then sat outside most of the night in the freezing cold and the snow. Suddenly Dubcek saw a shadow move among the trees. It was the bear. He waited for a clear shot, fired, the bear roared and stumbled into the woods. The forester was terrified. They had no dogs, and were alone. What if the bear were only wounded? Dubcek insisted, and they set out to look for it, circling about on higher ground. Some way off in the bush, they found the animal, dead. A year and a half later Dubcek issued a carefully prepared challenge to Novotný’s leadership, and in January 1968 replaced him as first secretary.

Beneath the shyness and modesty, Dubcek was a man of great tenacity and courage. It took him a long time to realize that communism needed reforming, but once he reached that conclusion, he proceeded slowly, methodically, and patiently toward that goal, displaying tactical political skills that were sometimes not obvious during the Prague Spring.

Extracting political autobiographies from former Communist politicians can present formidable problems. The tight-lipped, regimented atmosphere inside the ruling party, the craven orthodoxy …

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